Ashley trusted no one. She'd been yanked from her drug-addicted mother's arms at age 3 and placed in state custody. Foster care.
Over the next nine years, she was beaten, denied food, and once after getting sick, had her face shoved into vomit by a foster mother.
When placement No. 14 turned into adoption proceedings on July 28, 1998, with Phil and Gay Courter of Crystal River, the 12-year-old felt ambivalent. Unworthy.
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Ashley Rhodes-Courter didn't know that with a loving family's support she'd become a child welfare advocate, bestselling author, motivational speaker and a Levi's Shape What's to Come ambassador empowering young women around the world.
"My adoption day wasn't rainbows and sunshine," said the 24-year-old St. Petersburg resident. "I didn't believe in happily ever after then. Eventually love came, and now we're inseparable," she said of her and her adoptive parents. "At the time, I didn't truly believe I was worth being loved."
Rhodes-Courter has become a bit of a celebrity since the Levi's social hub went live in October at en.shapewhatstocome.com. Via the online community, she creates webinars and blogcasts and fields questions about foster care and adoption.
"Millennial women value independence above all," she said. "We're a different generation. Today, women can do anything and there is a huge realm of possibilities."
She is one of five ambassadors in the United States and 20 in the world (there are five in the United Kingdom and 10 in Japan.)
Rhodes-Courter, who posts updates weekly, will remain an ambassador through March.
This isn't her first time in the spotlight. After she submitted an essay about growing up in the Florida foster care system for the New York Times Magazine writing contest for high school students and won, her memoir, Three Little Words, was published by Simon & Schuster Atheneum Books in 2008.
The book made the New York Times bestseller list, and Rhodes-Courter appeared on the Today show, Good Morning America and Montel Williams. She was also featured in USA Today, Teen People and Glamour, and her face graced a 99-cent Cool Ranch Doritos bag.
Still, Rhodes-Courter was surprised when Levi's asked her to become a Shape What's to Come ambassador.
"I couldn't believe it, little orphan Ashley was being given creative freedom and a tremendous platform for permanency," Rhodes-Courter said. "People at Levi had read my book and were inspired by me. I had to pinch myself."
Levi Strauss and Co. awarded each ambassador a grant to continue her work. Rhodes-Courter says the money will help her spend time writing her second book and further her work as a child welfare advocate.
"Ashley was selected as a shapewhatstocome.com ambassador for her dedication to being a voice and an advocate for the thousands of neglected and abused children in America's foster care system today," said Mary Alderete, Levi's vice president of global women's marketing.
"She is truly a woman who is changing the world, and the Shape What's to Come community gives her the platform to share, inspire and grow with other young women interested in social change and youth advocacy."
While Rhodes-Courter offers insight as a former foster child, she also has experience as a guardian ad litem volunteer and recently finished training to become a foster parent.
Rhodes-Courter encourages people to consider adoption.
"I spent 10 years in foster homes and found out that 25 percent of the foster parents I lived with became convicted felons," she said. "Now I have a global platform to speak from and an online community that inspires each other."